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Book Review: Eimear O'Connor (ed.), Irish Women Artists 1800-2009: Familiar But Unknown

Book Cover, Irish Women Artists 1800-2009: Familiar But Unknown
Copyright & courtesy, Four Courts Press


Book Review: Éimear O'Connor (ed.), Irish Women Artists 1800-2009: Familiar But Unknown
Irish Women Artists 1800-2009: Familiar But Unknown
Éimear O'Connor (ed.)
Winter, 2010, Four Courts Press
978-1-84682-250-6, 240pp

Irish Women Artists 1800-2009: Familiar But Unknown 

 “Each generation opens the wounds, which close in the night behind them.”
Miriam Schapiro

Schapiro’s poetic summary of the ever-necessary feminist academic project is quoted within this collection of lectures edited by Éimear O'Connor. This line provides a powerful metaphor for Irish Women Artists’ scope and reach, tracing several generations of gendered visual practice – not quite all of it by women - and reopening the “wounds” of overlooked, misunderstood, “scapegoated” and marginalized work. As important as the provision and interpretation of new information on little known artists and makers in these texts, is their capacity to explore how and why these historical injuries occurred.

Carla Briggs’ essay on Margaret Clarke’s theatrical history-type oil painting Strindbergian (1927) is ostensibly a traditional analysis of the conception, construction and reception of a work made at a pivotal moment in an artist’s career: “a showcase of her artistic aspirations and skills” (p. 93). Careful archival research locates visual and literary influences (El Greco, Joyce, Beckett); traces compositional changes recorded in sketchbooks and meticulous preparatory works; and notes critical newspaper reviews of the finished piece. However, the artist’s gender - she wished not to be referred to as “the wife of an artist” (p. 85) - and Ireland’s 1920s political situation interweave with Briggs’ arguments. For example, the painting’s rural stone landscape is deeply Irish, chiming with a nationalism that belies Clarke’s avant-garde ambitions.
Beyond her archival research, the real success of Briggs’ interpretation is her decision to report not only on a painting by a woman (this is less radical than it once was), but also on a work that, crucially, failed in its task of attracting “public attention and critical comment” for the artist (p. 99). The essay concludes by admitting that Clarke returned to making less challenging, saleable work after her fantastical version of a history painting was misunderstood. The artist managed to sustain a career, but at the expense of that traditionally male preserve, recognition of innovation.

This embrace of failure and, more generally, obscurity echoes throughout the book, for example an essay on Sister Concepta Lynch, a nun with no desire to be well known, marks a deliberate move away from the rules of the conventional and pervasive Western canon. Significantly, however, one group of female artists were devalued in their home country for their adherence to the modernist norm, as discussed in Roisin Kennedy’s “Lhote’s Wives: Scapegoating Women Artists, 1962-84.” Well known internationally and taught by French cubist painter Andre Lhote in the 1920s and 1930s, artists Maine Jellett, Evie Hone and Norah McGuinness became by the 1960s symbols of the country’s status as “subjugated, feminine and “passive” to the cosmopolitan master (p. 170). It is this close attention to Ireland’s specificity as an art producing nation, especially in its relation to modernism, that makes Irish Women Artists so thought-provoking in its contribution to the unpicking of the mythical universality of abstraction.

Jane Humphries brings this analysis of Ireland’s specificity up to the present day in “Re(writing) the domestic into the everyday”, an article that considers why a feminist methodology is still useful in the study of contemporary art. Humphries provides a brief history of the theory of the everyday (proposed by the Marxist Henri Lefebvre in 1947), and its import into art practice, delayed until the 1990s, perhaps because of the lengthy shadow of Greenbergian (read: masculine) formalism. Interestingly, Humphries distinguishes between the masculine everyday: urban, outdoors, “the street, not the home” (p. 181), and its feminine counterpart based in domesticity. Perhaps the coding of these two locations ought not to be as simple as a binary gender split, but Humphries relation of the Greenbergian to the urban is more convincing. She goes on to describe contemporary Irish art made by women and men that merges the formalist and the domestic in ways that declare its “peripheral” and uncanny status (p. 182), with a beautiful example being Margaret O’Brien’s installation made from dressmaking pins, I live in the cracks in the wall (2008).

While this review has focused on Irish Women Artists’ studies of modern and postmodern Irish art – reflecting my own biases - the presented research also examines extra-canonical works in detail. For my purposes, the articles on earlier works act as a way to understand the inherited conditions of production and reception that have affected the careers of Irish, female modernist artists, as well as continuing feminism’s challenge to the art historical canon begun in the 1970s. For example, the Victorian aristocrat painter, Victoria, marchioness of Waterford, is not presented to us by researcher Myles Campbell as an “appendage” to the canon, but rather as a “valuable rubric” with which to analyse why women artists succeeded or failed according to their class status (p. 58).

Black and white inline image reproductions complement the small selection of colour plates. These naturally act as visual support for Irish Women Artists’ various arguments, as well as illuminating some severe gaps in the archival evidence that may have been caused by museal attitudes towards class and gender. That the book is not packed with lavish illustrations serves to remind us that it does not attempt to be a fulsome coffee-table canon, but rather a group of focused, critical and different views, whose Irishness casts new and fascinating light on problems of gender and the history of art.  



Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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